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Alsatian Pinot Gris: How Sweet It Is!

 Alsatian Pinot Gris: How Sweet It Is!
Discover France through Alsace.To most Americans, Pinot Gris/Pinot Grigio is a trendy white wine that suddenly appeared from Italy, California and Oregon just in time to rescue them from a lifetime of Chardonnay. Over the last few years, sales of Pinot Gris have taken off, especially in the wine-by-the glass arena. Nowadays we are seeing more and more Pinot Gris coming to our shores from Italy as well as from Australia and New Zealand.

Oddly, the one region we have not heard much from yet is Alsace, which is known for its white wines and has long favored varietal names. But for several reasons, Alsace has been more than a little slow in responding to the demand. In this charming wine region along the Rhine, growers have cultivated Pinot Gris for over 400 years. But only now are the Alsatians getting their act together, which required them first of all to agree that the wine should be labeled Pinot Gris.

Well after it became known that the grape had nothing to do with Tokay wine or never enjoyed a stop-over in Hungary on its way from Burgundy, the Alsatians continued to label their wines Tokay d'Alsace. More recently many labeled it Tokay Pinot Gris.
The good news is that by the end of 2006, all Alsatian wines produced from this grape variety will have to be labeled Pinot Gris. This long-overdue change will eliminate confusion and at last allow Alsace to play on a level field.


As the third "noble" variety in Alsace, Pinot Gris has been expanding over the last two decades and its acreage has grown three-fold to represent 13% of Alsace's current 15,000 hectares of vineyards. Introduced from Burgundy long ago, Pinot Gris is a mutation of Pinot Noir.
Jean Meyer, the free-thinker/artist/philosopher at JosMeyer, is among a handful of producers who takes Pinot Gris as seriously as Riesling and Gewurztraminer. When visited in October during the middle of the harvest, he had set aside several clusters to reinforce the fact that this variety is a mutation. Some clusters contain both red and white berries. He also had a cluster with individual berries that were half white, half red. He spoke French as most Alsatians do with a German cadence, and it seemed so ironical that the subject was a grape that couldn't decide if it were white or red.


As a white wine made from dark-skinned grapes, Pinot Gris can offer the body and viscosity of a red wine with the acidity of a white. Despite its multiple personalities, Pinot Gris is a winemaker's dream. Driving along Alsace's wine roads, we noted the skins of Pinot Gris had picked up considerable color (much more than Gewurztraminer) which suggests the wines will develop more body and flavor concentration than is normal with a normal white variety.
But Philippe Blanck explains that in Alsace Pinot Gris can also have a white wine's high acidity. It ripens early and in Alsace can easily achieve 13.5% alcohol. With its thin skins, Pinot Gris develops botrytis under the right conditions which means greater concentration and much higher alcohol levels. As winemaker Laurence Faller of Domaine Weinbach put it, "Pinot Gris is the varietal you can play around with the most. It doesn't have the bitterness of Gewurz to work around which makes it more versatile. You can push it in terms of ripeness. The one thing it needs as a wine," she adds, "is balance."

Pinot Gris' far-reaching flavor profile seems to bring out the poet and artist in many Alsatian winemakers. Andre Ostertag wrote a 3-part poetic history (in French, of course) about his atypical 2002 Pinot Gris Muenchberg. The artist within Jean Meyer associates Pinot Gris with images of the soil and with autumn. He continues, "The basic aromas of Pinot Gris are those associated with underbrush, cereals, and smoke.
The wine often reminds me of that wonderful aroma of the bakery shop in the early morning. It also has scents of almonds, figs, dried apricots and even of meats such as venison. With Pinot Gris we are looking to produce a wine that works well with food." Other winemakers mention definite mineral notes in many wines along with mushroom, anise/licorice and an exotic fruit note of quince.


Interestingly, CIVA, Alsace's promotional arm, is now pushing Pinot Gris as a highly versatile food wine. It works well, they say, "with white meats, game, fowl, cheese, and foie gras." Indeed, every winemaker visited went on at great length regarding the various courses that are enhanced by Alsatian Pinot Gris. Mushroom risotto, salmon, pizza, and, well, every food item in the food lexicon goes well with Pinot Gris. There is this wonderful hypothesis advanced by the CIVA that Alsatian Grand Cru Pinot Gris "can accompany every course in a meal." Wow! Have we at long last encountered the one wine that fits all, the Holy Grail of Wines? Hold the celebrations.


On my first day in Alsace, eager to soak up everything about Pinot Gris, we stopped for lunch at a Winstub in Thann which is a pretty village in the south. I asked for a dry Pinot Gris which seemed like a perfect wine to pair with the day's special. Politely but ever so firmly, the waitress explained to me, "If you want a dry wine, Riesling and Pinot Blanc are dry. Pinot Gris is a sweet wine." I ordered a Pinot Gris which was a little too sweet, and she gave me that "I told you so" look whenever possible.

After wisely deciding to label the varietal Pinot Gris, the Alsatians have yet to agree on style. Sadly, a surprising number cling to the traditional belief that the wine is best when finished with some residual sugar. Even after eliminating the sweet specialty wines such as the Vendange Tardives and the Selection de Grain Noble from the discussion, Alsatian Pinot Gris is totally unpredictable in terms of what consumers can expect regarding its dryness/sweetness level.

Many basic AOC Pinot Gris are diluted and off-dry while a few others are bone dry. It is not uncommon to encounter an inexpensive, delightfully aromatic Pinot Gris with as much as 30-40 grams per liter of residual sugar. But a bigger problem is that many Grand Cru Pinot Gris sometimes contains as much as 80 or 100 g/l of sugar with alcohol levels over 14%. There are fifty Grand Cru vineyards which represent only 4% of the total, but they are responsible for some of the most unusual, super-ripe, over-the-top Pinot Gris. These wines also loom large in determining the way people perceive Alsatian Pinot Gris.

As Jean Hugel, the long-time unofficial ambassador for Alsatian wine explains it, "Pinot Gris can be a wonderful alternative to Chardonnay. It is not as aromatic as Gewurztraminer or as acidic as Riesling. It has wonderful character and is full-bodied. We could make many friends of Alsace with good dry Pinot Gris."
The emphasis falls upon "could" and "dry" as Hugel, Trimbach, Beyer and other traditional Alsatian producers have gone on a crusade which at times gets quite emotional to return the prevailing style of Alsatian wines in general and Pinot Gris in particular to dry and classically balanced food wines.

Hugel suspects that many Alsatian wines are being finished powerful and sweet because they win awards in competitions and earn high scores from reviewers. He adds, "Too many of our producers are aiming for competition-friendly, but not food-friendly wines. For over 40 years, the Germans have looked to Alsace to learn how to make drier wines. Now the situation is reversed and Alsatians would be well-advise to follow the German example."

For his part, Jean Trimbach traces the problem of unnecessary residual sweetness to high yields which in turn invite growers to delay harvesting until the fruit becomes super ripe with or without botrytis. Using 2004 as an example, Trimbach explained that it was possible to harvest ripe and healthy Pinot Gris with a potential alcohol of 14% and be finished by the first week of October. "We had to file a "déclaration de pré-vendange" to begin on September 30th because the official date to begin harvesting was October 4th, the day we finished." He adds, "We were able to harvest earlier in 2004 which was a copious year because we 'green harvested' in late August." He estimates that less than 10% of all producers green harvested or dropped clusters of Pinot Gris in 2004.

However, Domaine Zind-Humbrecht, which produces some of the richest Pinot Gris with high alcohol and often some residual sugar, severely restricts yields in its vineyards. The Alsace AOC laws allow for up to 80 hl/ha, but Olivier Humbrecht worked in 2002 with yields from 23.5 hl/ha up to a high of 49 hl/ha. But since he insists on doing things the natural way, using native yeasts and letting the fermentation follow its course, adding nothing, and never adjusting for acidity, he is not aiming for sweet Pinot Gris.
In his words, "I do not make wines. I take care of vineyards and harvest grapes and let them become wines the most natural way. Some years there are a lot of sweet ones, some year there are a lot of dry ones. 2001 and 2002 have high natural acidity and more botrytis. Therefore, it is normal that the yeasts struggle more and leave more sweetness in the final wine. The 2003 Pinot Gris are almost all bone dry." But, I should add, you don't know for sure from one vintage to the next until you taste them--which for most people is not a serious option.

Recognizing that consumers desperately need a few clues about sweetness levels in Pinot Gris, the CIVA (Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin d'Alsace) stepped in. It has created five categories of sweetness which eventually will become mandatory on labels. A few of the 2004 Pinot Gris check which one of the five the wine falls into. The categories which are subject to interpretation are as follows:

Dry (Sec)
Tastes Dry (Se goute sec)
Balanced (Equilibre)
Rich (Puissant)
Sweet (Moelleux)

Though far from perfect, this system should at least sort out the sugary wines that are Rich and/or Sweet.

The alternative is to provide the measurable amounts of sugar, but this too is imperfect. Tasting the 2002 Pinot Gris from Domaine Zind-Humbrecht was exciting but also demonstrated that the problem relates to how sweetness is perceived by individual tasters. The winery's 2002 "Clos Windsbuhl" offers intense, beautiful fragrances (quince, smoky, earthy) in a rich, ripe, round and ever so big wine. Calling it a "masterpiece" or another great but totally different wine is not crazy. The problem is that when tried with different food it did not work well as a wine because of the light sweetness in the finish. It has 15.1% alcohol and 14 g/l of sugar.

On the other hand, Zind-Humbrecht's 2002 Rangen de Thann Clos Saint Urbain Grand Cru Pinot Gris (15% alcohol, 38 g/l sugar) was remarkably and superbly drinkable with food, while the 2002 Rotenberg (13.2% alcohol, 37 g/l sugar) was perceived to be beautifully balanced by some tasters; ever so slightly sweet by others.


The Zind-Humbrecht style that begins with super-ripe grapes is in vogue these days. Though many special cuvees and Grand Cru Pinot Gris are over-ripe and cloying in the finish, a few winemakers in addition to Olivier Humbrecht pull off a superb balancing act between ultra-ripeness and acidity. JosMeyer's 2004 Grand Cru Brand is beautiful, and superbly balanced, an extraordinary tour de force. Similarly, Domaine Albert Mann's 2002 Grand Cru, Hengst is rich, concentrated and has enough acidity to hold off its sweetness.
Lucien Albrecht, a high-quality producer, trotted out several impressive Pinot Gris from different vintages. Its 2001 Grand Cru Pfingstberg offered amazing complexity and vibrancy, mingling ripe fruit with an earthy, smoky, mushroomy side. Coming from the opposite direction in terms of wine style, Andre Ostertag of Domaine Ostertag, is a poet/playwright who also restricts yields but work within a Burgundian framework. At Ostertag, Pinot Gris is handled like any other member of the Pinot family in that the wines are barrel fermented, aged on the lees in small oak and finished dry. Although I found very few Alsatian Pinot Gris that might pass for fine Burgundy, Ostertag's 2002s and 2003s were stellar exceptions. The 2002 Muenchberg A360P is absolutely brilliant, with the perfumed charm of Pinot Gris and the concentration, structure and balance of a fine Burgundy. A great Pinot Gris! Also showing signs of wood aging, the 2002 Ostertag Zellberg is dense, tight, and austere, needing a few years to open up.

Another style gaining momentum is Pinot Gris from ripe, but not over-ripe fruit with excellent acidity to yield a balanced, elegant wine. Under the guiding hands of Philippe and Frederick Blanck, Domaine Paul Blanck is definitely moving toward more delicate, more drinkable Pinot Gris. Blanck's low-priced regular 2003 Pinot Gris, the 2001 Grand Cru Furstentum, and the all-purpose 2003 "Patergarten" are outstanding wines for the money. Also beautifully balanced are the 2003 Pinot Gris from Rene Mure's Clos St. Landelin, JosMeyer Vieilles Vignes, Lucien Albrecht's "Clos des Recollets," Domaine Weinbach Cuvee Catherine, and Andre Tempe et Fils Pinot Gris. Bottes Freres with its Reserve Personnelle nails this style perfectly.

Being relatively new to wine production, winemaker Marc Tempe may be tipping the scale toward big but dry Pinot Gris. Tempe, formerly with the INAO, is a practitioner of biodynamics who favors ripe fruit, native yeasts, long fermentations and dry finished Pinot Gris. Tempe's Zellenberg 2003 Pinot Gris is lovely, deep, concentrated, and balanced. There are several other noteworthy wineries working hard with Pinot Gris. Keep an eye out for Bott-Geyl, Meyer Fonne, Jean Sipp, Mittnacht-Klack, Dopff Au Moulin, Jean Geiler, and Bruno Sorg.

In Alsace, cooperatives are important and are not always large producers. Among them, the Cave de Turckheim, with its Reserve and Grand Cru Brand which lean toward sweetness is exceptionally good.

All told, to borrow from Bob Mondavi, the Alsatians "are just beginning to scratch the surface" when it comes to Pinot Gris. It took them 400 years to get scratching, but if you like what Pinot Gris offers, then you should start looking seriously at Alsatian Pinot Gris.

Norm Roby April, 2006
Posted on Thursday, October 26 @ 18:45:27 MDT by pierre
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Colmar. Capital of alsacian vineyards.
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Colmar. Nice city.
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